Evaluating Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Help Desks
Extension master gardeners are volunteers in the Cooperative Extension system that aim to educate the community about sustainable horticultural practices. Their required volunteer hours are fulfilled through educational workshops, presentations, home garden visits, help desks, and many other services. While help desk services are being overshadowed by the various search engines we use to find the answers to our questions, the data gathered from Extension master gardener help desks can help Extension professionals prioritize programs and allocate resources effectively. There is no current research that shows aggregated help desk data as an indicator of community needs, program prioritization, or program improvement. The objective of this study was to determine the most common topics that arise through the help desk and compare them with current master gardener initiatives to determine whether community needs are being met. Connections can be made between the hardiness zone of each master gardener unit, the season, and the types of topics that typically arise. A survey was developed and sent out to master gardener coordinators, agents, and volunteers across Virginia to gather this information. The survey had an overall response rate of 35%, with a response rate of 3.70% in zone 6a, 3.70% in zone 6b, 29.63% in zone 7a, 48.15% in zone 7b, and 14.81% in zone 8a. The survey results indicated that there were significant differences between the topics of interest in communities of different hardiness zones, as well as notable seasonal differences. Conclusions and recommendations were made specific to each zone, as they varied greatly in response rates and topic frequencies making it difficult to draw conclusions across zones.